Changing times: Victory Services Club on life as a key worker hotel

The Victory Services Club in London has been operating as a key worker hotel throughout the Covid-19 peak. We spoke to operations director Mark Field about the experience, what the future holds for event venues – and why the hospitality industry is crying out for government guidance ahead of its potential reopening in July…

It came quicker than everybody expected. You had quite a lot of nervous people.

We closed to the public on Friday 20 March and then we briefed everybody at work that we were going to reopen as a key worker hotel. The government furlough scheme hadn’t been announced at that point. We didn’t have much information to reassure people in that first week.

Social distancing is now in everyone’s mind, but it didn’t really exist in early March. We didn’t have an off-the-shelf product – we were creating everything internally; roped barriers, appropriate wording etc. But we still needed to be welcoming and safe. The guests were still coming to relax.

We’d started plans around February around how we would shut down in stages. We’d approached the Ministry of Defence prior to lockdown about becoming a key worker hotel, through our military connections. Then we set up everybody remotely.

We have 200 rooms – at the peak of the outbreak in early April we were doing about 60 bedrooms. In the main we had military guests; army, navy and RAF, right up to senior officers. We also had some NHS workers.

Troubling times

To keep everybody safe, the restaurants were closed, all food was done by room service. We did a continental breakfast, they booked a time and we delivered it to the bedroom door, then we asked for all trays to be outside the room by 10am. The delivery is quite labour intensive. They could also get lunch and dinner as well.

We did 60 rooms for most of April. It tapered down in May and June will be significantly lower. The R rating is going in the right direction.

We’ve had guest feedback from key workers about how we made them feel welcome in troubling times. We got a very nice letter from a senior officer saying that our staff should consider themselves key workers, as the military wouldn’t be able to continue in their roles without them. That was nice.

Staff morale has been good throughout – we’ve tried to keep that up even though we have to social distance. We got a cheap table tennis table, as you can play that and still keep two metres apart. We’ve also been Zooming with the teams working remotely. We’ve tried to keep everybody smiling. It can be a bit monotonous – there needs to be some fun.

Ahead of the game

We’re just itching to open. Our experience as a key worker hotel means that when we reopen to the public we’re a bit ahead of the game. We’ve drafted our plans, and they’ll be redrafted – at the moment we’re second guessing what the restrictions will be. But our plan will be good, we’ll be ready.

We’ve set up the restaurant and we’ve lost 24 tables. It’s quite a large space – at first it looked a bit lifeless. But then we laid all the tables and now we think it looks pretty good. I’m interested to see what people think, that first reaction. So many people say eating out is what they miss most at the moment. So we know they’re going to come back. We’ve got to make sure that they come back to dine again after that.

It’s the same with events. The sooner they give us guidance and deadlines we can make the venues work. 90 per cent of our events are postponed. We’ve still got a lot of business when we reopen. Realistically, we know 200 for dinner is not going to take place, but when the government gives us the info we can go to the client and liaise with them. Events will still happen, they’re just going to be a bit different for a while.

No further details

We’ve got this time before opening and we could really be ramping things up. When they announced that hospitality may open in July, there were no further details. If they announced the standards, it’d be nice if someone came in to check first. Will that happen?

We will be fully prepared and have good plans in place. However, if you’re a small family-run restaurant you’ll prioritise reopening and catch up on safety as you go along, because you need the money. If that information comes in late June they will get as much as they can ready – but there might be a delay. If you give everybody the information now, everybody would be ready.